Week 434: At The Funeral, by David Sutton

My elder sister died last month, just another Covid statistic, and had her funeral this week. She had no wish to die, but had at least been quite looking forward to her funeral, with a church full of mourners, lots of hymns and a good party to follow. Alas, she got twenty minutes in a crematorium with a mere handful of masked and socially distanced attendees who had nowhere to go afterwards but home. What a regimented society we have of necessity become. I begin to wonder if even my own simple instructions regarding the disposal of my remains, involving a Viking longship, some barrels of tar and an archer on a headland with a flaming arrow, might not fall foul of some regulation or other…

This poem was written some years back, when I was beginning to witness the departure of my parents’ generation, and things could still be done with a little style.

At The Funeral

Funerals of the old are for the old:
The young, even the middle-aged, intrude,
Stiff in their unpractised piety,
Distracted by oak poppyheads, by light
From stained glass windows blue as irises.
There may be grief, but they are grateful too
To simplifying death that has unpicked
This knot of care from their much-tangled lives.
It is the old that mourn without alloy,
That shoulder loss and lay it to its rest.

Who are they though, so lusty at the back
With lifted voice, needing no book of hymns,
The sad spruce women and the grey-haired men?
What is it that they stare at past the air?
Outside, in winter sunlight, all’s revealed:
The cousins of her youth, friends, neighbours, come
To honour old acquaintanceship; now lives
Like long-divided rivers meet again,
A swirling confluence of memory
Carries the dead one to the final sea.

How gently they exclude one. ‘That would be
Before your time.’   ‘That’s going back a bit.’
But always to such time they do go back:
To rationing, the Blitz, heroic toil,
The fields of childhood, legendary snows,
Shops, terraces long gone. I understand:
Each dying nerves a new resistance, firms
A final bond of shared exclusiveness.
This is a closing ranks: like pioneers
They man the dwindling circle of their days.

The January sunlight has turned cold.
The ceremony’s over. They depart
Down unsafe streets to doors they must keep locked.
What they came to do is done: somewhere
A girl they knew is running over grass
In a green country, leaving them behind
To counters and containments, ritual
And stoic unsurprise, such as they use
Whose lives have fed on long adversity,
Who know betrayal, and will not betray.

David Sutton

5 thoughts on “Week 434: At The Funeral, by David Sutton

  1. How terribly sad, your sister’s death David, and how disappointing the funeral in these miserable coronavirus times.
    It is, however, a fine poem: beautifully handled. I enjoyed reading it slowly.
    You’d better start on drafting your own epitaph in case your modest funeral plans come to nothing!

    • Thank you, John, much appreciated.

      I always think the best self-crafted poetic epitaph has been Frost’s ‘I would have written of me on my stone:/He had a lover’s quarrel with the world’.

      I have a feeling I am going to have to settle for ‘Oh well, he tried’.

  2. Oh dear, John L has beaten me to it! A poet deserves an epic final journey, and David please do pen your obit – and insist that your executor post (*) it here for your followers who can’t get to see you off!
    * BTW Is this usage still called “subjunctive”?

    • Hooray for correct grammar – yep, long live the subjunctive, and there’s another. Though far be it from me to cause my executors any undue hassle, as it were. (I think that’s two more). And may I reassure any followers I may have that I have no plans to shuffle off this mortal coil just yet – heaven forbid. (Which makes four). But thank you for your concern!

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